Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Best Books of the Year: 1814 - neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners

What were the Best Books of the Year in 1814?  What I have usually done in a post like this is scrounge together every book of any literary consequence at all from a given year, which is not as hard a task as it seems since two hundred years culls the herd of books so brutally (as does twenty years; as does two).  But 1814 was unusual because its best books were so influential.

Another change is that I did more anniversary reading than usual this year (usual: none), so I will just link back to some recent posts.  One of these influential, foundational works was E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Golden Pot, for example, which is back here.  Another German novella from the same year, Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso casts almost as long a shadow.  It’s about a guy who sells his shadow to the devil.  That’s why I said – ah, never mind.  It’s good, too, if narrower than Hoffmann’s fantasy.

Then there’s Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s best book, which is more read now than anything else I will mention, but the influence of which is complicated by the fact that it is Jane Austen’s worst book.  At the time it was published, Austen was something like what we would now call a midlist writer, not a bestseller, but a seller, a writer with a lot of good readers, including Walter Scott and the dissolute Prince Regent who would later become King George IV.  If she had only lived a few more years, she would have been a guest of the king, and then she could have written a hilarious novel about that.  And she could have finished Sanditon.  And, and, and.

We do not have enough Austen novels, but we have more Walter Scott novels than anyone wants to read.  The first was Waverley, from this year, the novel that went viral, as the youngsters say, that did not literally invent the idea of the historical novel but in effect did so.  Waverley must have directly inspired hundreds of novels; further Scott novels must have led to thousands.  Within twenty years Balzac, Hugo, Gogol, Pushkin, Manzoni, and Dickens had written historical novels that were clearly Scott-like.  Dumas and Cooper made careers out of the form.  On and on, to the present, even if the amount of Scott in contemporary novels has become homeopathic.

And Scott really was doing something innovative, and he knew it.  That’s why he spends the first chapter, and plenty of later passages, describing what he is doing:

I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners…  (Chapter First)

Just the kind of thing many readers find deadly.  Scott certainly never seems to be in any hurry.  But Waverley is nevertheless a fine novel, funny, perceptive, and in some places fairly exciting.  I am rereading it now, so I will likely poke at the book more in the new year.

The final case, making at least four, is Lord Byron, who published some works key in the other viral phenomenon of the time, Byronism.  I want to save these for tomorrow, though.

So that’s: the novel that created historical novels, Byronism, Hoffmann fantasies, and an Austen novel.  Plus Peter Schlemihl.  And the earliest known Keats poems, but we have to wait two more years for the good stuff.

One final example, the reverse of the above.  The consensus Book of the Year in England, appearing on all of the lists, if there had been lists, would easily have been The Excursion by William Wordsworth, a book of great Significance and greater Tediousness.  It is close to unread now, and the curious thing is that it was made obsolete by Wordsworth himself, by the publication of The Prelude in 1850, a poem which does everything of value that The Excursion does except better – with more beauty, more narrative interest, and much less artificiality.  It took some time, but The Prelude eventually murdered The Excursion.  I doubt this happens very often.

From this distance, the number of surviving books from 1814 is hardly the point.  A good year.  I put a page from John Constable’s 1814 sketchbook, owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, up top.


  1. I enjoy the paradox in your posting: Mansfield Park as the best of novels and the worst of novels. Austen would be amused by the contrast, and later Dickens would be proud of that statement. As for myself, I have enjoyed returning to your former postings about Austen's novel. And I think I might now need to revisit Mansfield Park.

    Now, as for Wordsworth, almost universal critical opinions argues that the younger Wordsworth is superior as a poet to the older Wordsworth. I agree.

    With respect to Scott, I have never warmed up to the old fellow. Perhaps I have not given him enough of an effort. Confession: I remember stumbling badly over dialect sections in a book and then throwing the book aside forever.

    You sure know how to provoke your visitors. Now where did I put my copy of Mansfield Park? (Note: Nabokov says great things about the novel in the book that contains his lectures.)

  2. The appearance of Mansfield Park alone is enough to declare 1814 one of the greatest of years for literature.

    I haven't yet read The Excursion. But I should - otherwise I cannot really describe myself as a Wordsworthian. And I am. After all, I enjoy The Prelude! Hell - I even enjoy the 1850 text of The Prelude!

  3. The Excursion is not exactly older Wordsworth. He was only 44, and had been piecing it together for many years. Maybe it marks the boundary - the beginning of older Wordsworth. He did not write much of value afterwards, that is sure true.

    Himadri - you have read the first book of The Excursion, actually, since it is just "The Ruined Cottage." You have read the best part.

    I have come across a number of readers who have dialect allergies. What can you do.

    Nabokov's lectures always present a challenge for me - how to dodge around them. How to do something other than parrot them.

  4. What about Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert's Symbolism in Dreams? An immensely influential book.

  5. That is a question someone else will have to answer. As far as I am concerned, that book belongs to some other field, one about which I am ignorant. Is it a good book?

    Another influential book of this year is Försök att genom användandet af den electrokemiska theorien och de kemiska proportionerna grundlägga ett rent vettenskapligt system för mineralogien by J. Jacob Berzelius, or so I am told by Wikipedia, from whence I copied that lovely title. But I know my limits. Or, I know some of my limits.

    1. "good" is subjective. I've never read the whole thing (it's a long book), but I read chunks of it when I was on a Jung kick in my 20s. It's a wacky book, a book of philosophy that tries to force dreams into a Western European Enlightenment mold. Jung got the idea of archetypes from this book, and Hoffmann supposedly admired it, too. Schubert invented the term "hidden poet" for the dreaming part of the mind, which I like. Inside your head is a hidden poet, who declaims as you sleep. Which is all to say that I read it as fiction, maybe as science fiction.

    2. Wait: did I say "Enlightenment?" I mean "Judeo-Christian Enlightenment." Anyway, wacky stuff. Impenetrable in lots of ways, the usual unsupported claims of philosophers, etc. Mostly I remember that ideas from Schubert carry through to the present time, via Jung and Freud and Viennese artists/writers.

  6. That's what I thought. Impenetrable, terrific.

    I don't understand what you mean by subjective. This is a Best Books of the Year list! All distinctions between subjective and objective are on hold until the new year. Otherwise these lists collapse. Otherwise all hope is lost.

  7. Well, there's arguably Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found in Saragossa, which was first published in somewhat complete form in 1814. It was considered (by the surrealists among others) as the first book of the "Fantastic" genre.

    However, all the materials comprising the novel will not be gathered together in book form until 1846 (in Polish translation) and 2006 (in French, from manuscripts spread all over Europe).

  8. Now there is a book with a complex textual history. The bane of Best of the Year lists.

  9. Somehow you missed the Constitution. Of Norway, of course. Though I must admit I prefer the bowdlerized 1851 edition, where they, after much campaigning by the poet Henrik Wergeland, chose to (spoiler warning!) remove the paragraph that banned Jews from the country.

  10. Not being familiar with the story, this made me try to figure out whether the yiddish shlemil comes from the story. Sure doesn't look like it, so I guess the opposite is more likely. (Then there's the Norwegian "slimål", but never mind...)

    That said, when he sells his shadow, he at least gets some gold in return. I doubt Lucky Luke got much in return from straight up murdering his shadow. In fact, it might be how he ended up in limbo, endlessly having to catch and imprison the Daltons.

  11. I love how you kinda floated the idea of a group read of The Excursion there at the end! With all due respect to Wordsworth, though, I'm still hoping for a 5th post from you on mummified cats instead. Enough of this literature bunk!

  12. Yes, schlemihl was already a Yiddish word, imported into German for Chamisso's comic character. I enjoyed the relevant Lucky Luke homage. You may already know this, but almost all Americans are ignorant of Lucky Luke. Never caught on here. Not me, though, I am a citizen of the world.

    I love the idea of including the Norwegian constitution on this kind of list. Henrik Wergeland is a hero - thanks for pointing him out to me.

    Daniel Deronda has a mummifed cat reference. You can bet I emitted a mmrrowl of joy when I saw it.

    An Excursion readalong is a terrible idea, so a perfect fit here. When I was reading more in the early 19th century, I would come across writer after writer who took it for granted that The Excursion was Wordsworth's best work, the poet's apotheosis. So I finally had to see for myself. There were two demurrers - Coleridge and De Quincey, both of whom had read the manuscript of the 1805 Prelude and knew that that was the good stuff. They were right.